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When I was young, probably before 12 years old, I was extremely happy inside. Actually, only now do I know that I was extremely happy. At the time, I did not realize it, because I had nothing else to compare my feelings with. I do not remember when exactly the happy experience started, because, again, I did not know it was special. My very rough guess is that it started when I was about 5. I did not tell anybody at the time that I was very happy, because nobody in real life or in books I had read seemed to mention things like that, and I did not have the language, occasions, or incentive to tell my happy feelings to others. I was not a good talker anyway. In fact, I was clumsy and awkward socially. I was so happy inside that I was self-absorbed and did not care much about things outside, like talking to others.
I remember that I often stayed alone for hours in wild fields with tall grasses, staring at huge trees. I saw leaves shivering in gentle breezes, under glimmering sun rays through chasms between clouds. I watched each leaf carefully, to the extent that I felt I knew them individually. Sometimes, I made acquaintance with some leaves on the same branch. They were adjacent to each other and similar, with similar shapes, colors and veins, all tender and all quivering in wind, but moving in different directions and patterns, and with different rhythms. They were like brothers and sisters, all very quiet and very happy, and they were like my friends. I would be enthralled with them and their playful activities, totally losing track of time.
In gloomy days, I sometimes wandered listlessly on desolate pathways, with eyes fixated on reflections in the potholes filled with rain. There was a live-sized, humongous, inverted world in the water, and each puddle on the ground was like a window on that world, which always looked ominously grayer and more fascinating than the real one. The sky became a bottomless abyss, the clouds formed a fractured, unfathomably deep floor that made normal people acrophobic, the trees and buildings were their own vintage black and white replicas. I would be mesmerized with that more attractive world, which belonged only to me, because nobody else seemed to want or even notice it, until my fear for height suddenly kicked in, and I jerked back from the edge of the parallel universe, with blood rushing to my head out of phobia.
I enjoyed watching clouds, big or small, in bright white, sentimental grey, fire red, sunset orange, or gloomy black. I loved them in all different shapes and patterns, and in all kinds of weather, sunny, rainy, overcast or stormy. I would ride a bike between school and home, with my head raised up all the way, watching the ever-shifting clouds in the sky, and imagining the worlds on them. For a period, I liked heroes on horseback, and the clouds were all kinds of giant heroes and all kinds of giant horses. In another time, I fancied about world-traveling airships, and the clouds became airships with wild configurations. One day in middle school, the whole sky was filled with waving clouds from edge to edge, and they were all burning wildly. Some were fiery red like iron rods just taken out of a furnace, some were bright orange like lumbers lit up in fire. I watched and was in complete awe. Then the awe became a crushing fear. I run inside the house, yet could not help but peek at the sky through the window, with my whole body shaking unstoppably.
That was my childhood paradise, my personal Garden of Eden. It was all in my head, away from the real human world, hidden in plain sight from other people, including those closest to me, like my parents, sisters and friends. I never talked about this paradise with anyone, because it seemed so commonplace to me. It was with me every day, and I took it for granted. Besides, nobody else talked about such things anyway. With this inside wonderland, I really did not have much incentive to bother myself with things in school or in the bigger society. Relatively speaking, they were all unimportant or not-so-important, unpleasant or not-so-pleasant. I was hence shy or “anti-social.” Why did I want to deal with those grumpy and insidious people when I had my own personal wonderland?
In early high school, I was suddenly yanked out of the paradise, as violently in psychology as a kid was snatched from his parents by savage Vikings or American Indians. The only difference was that, in my case, the perpetrator was myself. Almost overnight, the “real world” fell on me. I had a huge crush on a girl, I gained insights into Newton’s theorems, and I started to worry about my future as an adult. I don’t remember which event was first or last, or which caused which. They all happened roughly at the same time. Suddenly, my listless and gleeful childhood ended, and I obtained a new set of goals in life, as well as a new sense of urgency to achieve them. My whole mind was sucked into those new things. I aspired to be good, excellent, and number one, and I craved to love, and to be loved by, a wonderful girl, because nothing less than the best in the real world seemed worthy for me to leave my personal paradise.
During the day, my whole mind was plunged into constant and deep contemplations about philosophy, physics and math, as well as my plans for future life. At night, I should fall asleep but could not stop thinking. My mind was like a spinning engine, dangerously overheating and inching closer to a breakdown, and I knew it. The harder I tried to stop, the more awake I became. Thus, my insomnia became a real problem and caused a lot of pain for me. When the problem became psychological, I really started to miss my lost paradise. “Where is it?” “I need that sense of easy and unconditional satisfaction now!” I thought to myself, and I seriously tried to get back to my old mental home. I ran into wild fields, kept my eyes up for clouds, or stared into puddles, but what I saw was just trees, clouds and potholes, plain and ugly. My mind simply could not find an entrance back to the old paradise. I developed a strong sense that I was robbed, kidnapped to a hostile territory, far away from my beautiful home, and with no way back.
From the age of 13 to early 40’s, my mind stayed in this real world. I fought for survival and successes, keenly aware that I was in an unfriendly place that was never meant to welcome me. Nothing here was for granted. If I wanted or needed anything, I had to fight for it. At the same time, the memory of my heavenly home lingered in the back of my mind. Many times when I was under huge pressure, including the depressing period before my college entrance exams, when I was in detention after the June 4 Movement, when I failed to stay in Shanghai with your mom after my Master’s, when I was unfairly treated in schools, and when I was under panic attacks while running my own firm, I visualized my childhood paradise. The memories reminded me how beautiful life could be, and how blessed I had been. Such positive thoughts stopped me from giving up during dark times and pulled me back from the edge of mental collapses.
As time went on, I had family and kids, I had a business and made more money, and I became more and more settled in this real world, which was actually my adoptive home. Decades passed, and my memory of my childhood paradise became more and more distant. The images in my memory became stale and more like sketched icons than realistic pictures, but my longing for it never stopped. After I retired, to my surprise, I have sporadically experienced brief moments of returning to my childhood mentality when I am close to the nature. Those moments made me ecstatic and nostalgic, but also let me realize that time has changed. I am now more or less comfortably and happily settled in the real world. My mind may sometimes pay visits to the personal Garden of Eden, but I will never be able to fully go back to the old times.
The other day, I was at home thinking about my children who were away in college, while looking at trees in the backyard through a window. Leaves were fluttering in the wind, and memories of my childhood moments flashed back, mixed with images of my children’s wildly happy faces when they were little. At that time, they were all very happy, self-confident, and physically healthy. They did not smile much. Instead, they laughed all the time, hard and loud. I started to speculate that they might have their own internal paradises too, and they just never had a chance to tell others, just like what happened to me at the tender age.